Jane Smiley, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres (1991) as well as other works of fiction and nonfiction, offers an intimate view of marriage in her latest novel. Also Reviewed Ten Days in the Hills ( May/June 2007) and 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel ( Jan/Feb 2006).
The Story: Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the St. Louis World's Fair, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Great Depression, two world wars, and Japanese internment, a woman comes to grips with her long, unhappy marriage. By the age of 27, Missouri-born Margaret Mayfield has witnessed a public hanging, the deaths of two brothers, and her father's suicide. With dim marriage prospects, the plain Margaret manages to wed astronomer and naval officer Andrew Early; she moves to San Francisco with him and experiences more tragedy as she becomes entrapped in her husband's life. But women of this era remain faithful, and as Margaret comes to terms with the truth about her delusional husband, she also learns some truths about herself.
Knopf. 318 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781400040605
"It kept me up all night, long after I'd finished it, remembering the lives of my mother and grandmothers, recalling every novel about women I had ever read, from Anna Karenina to My Ántonia. ... It's not often that a work as exceptional as this comes along in contemporary American letters." Marie Arana
"Smiley's eye is keen, and the book's historical pageant is often mesmerizing and always elegantly composed--and yet, Private Life leaves you thinking about its smaller events rather than its large ones. It is, at heart, about the death of hope; about how a woman trying to make the best of things learns that there's nothing better waiting." Moira Macdonald
"Despite multiple characters, packed events, and excessive detail (three pages on peddling a new bicycle), the natural passage of time pushes the reader forward. ... Though the novel can feel like a slog, persistence brings riches." Mameve Medwed
NY Times Book Review
"Through every scene and revelation, [Smiley] keeps in mind the moment she's building toward: the completion of Margaret's long-deferred self-recognition. What she finally delivers has a Jamesian twist of the unforeseen, but it's achieved with a sureness of hand that's all her own." Sven Birkerts
San Francisco Chronicle
"The reader yearns for a protagonist with more agency, passion and freedom. ... Margaret is often presented to the reader as if she's stuck behind a sheet of glass; the narrator tends to talk over the characters, so the reader knows little about an event, or what Margaret is experiencing." Nina Schuyler
Globe and Mail (Canada)
"Smiley is a wizard at describing Margaret's emotional states, her early spunk and the subtle nature of Margaret's reawakening after the dimming down of her energy and desire when she is married. ... The problem with Margaret's story is a lack of drama." Susan Swan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"The story of a woman stuck in a rut gets stuck in its own rut. ... . Everything Smiley writes is well worth reading, but Private Life is not her very best work." Harper Barnes
Critics have regularly lauded Jane Smiley for her virtuoso, dramatic storytelling, wide historical scope, and remarkable literary range. Yet while Private Life provides an often fascinating look into late 19th- and early- and mid-20th-century Midwestern and Western social and domestic mores for patient readers, most reviewers conceded that the novel is not among Smiley's finest. Richly detailed, the story focuses closely on Margaret's emotional awakening and is often mesmerizing. Yet, with little drama to carry it along, it often bogs down in tedious details. Critics also expressed frustration with Margaret's lack of agency. Then again, Private Life is a portrait of a bygone era, a social document of domestic life that "make[s] us rethink the ways we remember the past" (Globe and Mail).